Astute Observations

Yo, neighbor, what do you think this is, Music City, U.S.A.?

Hello. My name is James Haggerty, and I am a criminal. All of my friends are criminals. When we consort, we perform criminal activities. We divvy up our filthy lucre and light our cigars with it. You are probably asking, “What’s your racket, Mack?” Making records in Music City, USA, that’s what. Strike up the band, jailbirds. Let’s rock!
     I am not exaggerating. Under current Metro code, if you operate a home studio in Nashville, you are in violation of the law. You read it. It’s true. Home studios in Nashville are illegal.
     Recently, a home studio owner in East Nashville, one of my criminal associates, was issued a cease and desist letter from our city after a complaint from a neighbor. Out of fear of further penalty, he is taking the Fifth. At stake is his ability to make a living and support his family. Metro enforces the law selectively. They do not go out looking for studios in neighborhoods. It’s a “don’t ask, don’t tell” scenario. It only takes one complaint to earn a letter. If you do not cease and desist, heavy fines and possible property seizure come next. At this point, you are probably thinking, “Well that’s what you get for growing weed.”
     Except this is not drugs, or gambling, or any other vice that criminals normally traffic in. And that is as far as I am going to take the analogy. It’s been fun, but it’s over. I am not a criminal and neither are my friends. We are musicians. We are making music that provides our city with its national and international identity. Robert Altman made a movie about it. Now we’ve got a prime time soap opera about it. Music puts Nashville on the map. I would argue that it is the busiest recording city in the world. Music brings the tourists here and the conventioneers.
     I would love to tell you about the many famous names that have made hit records at their own Nashville home studios. I would love to tell you about the many award-winning rock, pop, and country records that have been recorded at home studios in East Nashville. I am proud of my friends that produced, wrote, recorded, engineered, mixed, and mastered them. I would love to celebrate them in this column. Fear of naming names and threatening livelihoods prevents me from doing so. You know, it’s like McCarthyism with a beat. Instead, I offer this:
     As a young man, Rudy Van Gelder developed an interest in recording music. His parents devoted a room in their house in Hackensack, N.J., to a home studio. At home from 1946 through 1959, Van Gelder recorded artists like Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Jimmy Smith, and so many others. He created the sound of Blue Note Records, the Van Gelder sound. In 1959, he built his own home studio in nearby Englewood Cliffs where he continued to work, recording much of the most important and influential jazz music for the next 40 years.
     What if Van Gelder’s studios had been declared illegal? What if the city had shut him down? What might have been lost? Perhaps jazz in America as we know it.
     In 2013, then-Councilwoman Megan Barry introduced legislation to legalize home studios. The bill was tabled to permit further discussion with interested parties, including the local chapter of the musicians union.  I hope we get another chance at this bill before another letter shows up at another studio door. If Mayor Barry reintroduces this issue to the Metro Council, we must become politicians ourselves. The most famous among us, those whose voices carry the most weight, must step forward. Politicians live and die by public opinion and votes. If we take the music out of Music City, USA, we become Any City, USA. There must be a compromise that will satisfy the interests of concerned neighbors and allow for home studios. The future of music in Nashville hangs in the balance. We all must step forward in support. Secrets and fear have no place in Music City.